From the frontline of a technology revolution

Like other contractors that have implemented building information modeling (BIM) technology, University Mechanical & Engineering Contractors Inc. (UMEC), an EMCOR company, set realistic goals when the organization initiated this project delivery method several years ago: eliminating rework, coordinating internal trades, improving productivity, expanding prefab opportunities and improving consistency of the work product.

Like other contractors that have implemented building information modeling (BIM) technology, University Mechanical & Engineering Contractors Inc. (UMEC), an EMCOR company, set realistic goals when the organization initiated this project delivery method several years ago: eliminating rework, coordinating internal trades, improving productivity, expanding prefab opportunities and improving consistency of the work product.

UMEC's use of BIM met all of these goals: it increased accuracy of coordination efforts to more than 95%, enabled standardization across all projects and more than doubled the amount of work that has been moved from the field to the shop, increasing productivity and safety as a result.

Moreover, it offered a clear opportunity to differentiate UMEC from competitors. Owners not only appreciate the capability to visualize a project early in the design phase, they welcome the significant reductions in design and construction conflicts that result from a collaborative approach to using BIM. Naturally, they appreciate the savings in time and money.

Of course, successful implementation and use of BIM requires significant investments in technology, staff and training, a commitment among project team members to collaboration and well-defined implementation and project delivery plans. What is the bottom line? It is well worth the investment and effort.

BIM defined

Most contractors are familiar with the definition of BIM: use of three-dimensional modeling concepts, information technology and interoperable software to design, construct and operate a facility on a PC. However, BIM can be far more than a tool for virtual modeling. When BIM is effectively used by all key members of a project team — the architecture/engineering firm (A/E), general contractor or construction manager and specialty contractors, in particular, the mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection contractors — it can become a platform for true collaboration.

A/E firms have been using 2-D CAD for many years to produce their construction drawings. Larger mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection contractors have used 3-D CAD/software to draw their distribution systems and create fabrication drawings, which enabled them to fabricate elements of their distribution systems early. Certainly, there are advantages to this approach, in particular, greater productivity with a smaller labor force during installation, which can reduce costs for the owner. However, if A/E firms and contractors are working independently, they still cannot be certain that the systems will actually “fit” together without conflicts when they are installed. As a result, requests for information and re-work remain problems during construction, which can cause delays and cost overruns.

Virtual design and construction

In fact, BIM is much more than an electronic drawing tool. Driven by an information-rich database, it enables members of the project team to simulate the structure and all of its systems in three dimensions and to share this information. The drawings, specifications and construction details are integral to the model. As a result, the team members are able to identify design issues and construction conflicts well before the first earthmover arrives at the site.

BIM is virtual design and construction, and that is the real power of a collaborative approach to this project delivery method.

Overcoming obstacles and challenges

So why isn't every contractor jumping on board? Overcoming resistance to change is probably the biggest obstacle. The technology has existed for 20 years. Certain specialty contractors have used it with success for about five years. In particular, mechanical contractors have been on the frontline of this revolution because of the potential savings associated with the design and installation of complex mechanical systems. Similarly, architects have embraced the technology and project delivery method. But it is only within the last two years that the commercial contracting industry as a whole has begun to embrace the change, partly due to the recognition of its benefits and because owners are demanding it.

As recently as two years ago, it seemed that most contractors believed BIM was a passing fad. A year ago, many still needed to be convinced that its time had come. Today, it appears that the majority of contractors are ready and willing to adopt the BIM methodology.

There also is some resistance on the owner side of the table. Certainly, most owners can see the potential value in the BIM concept, and once they have participated in a project delivered using BIM, the benefits become tangible. However, those who have not yet participated in a BIM project need to understand that the process delivers the most value when it is collaborative — that is, when the design team, the general contractor or construction manager and key specialty contractors work together starting in the design phase. In fact, input from the mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection contractors in the design phase is critically important to ensure there are no collisions or conflicts in the field.

Still, many owners are concerned about abandoning the traditional design-bid-build approach, which enables them to award specialty contracts to the lowest bidders, in favor of hiring all team members on a qualifications basis at the outset of the project. There is a solution to the owners' dilemma — conversion to a lump-sum contract at the completion of design, just prior to the start of the construction phase. This provides them with a solid dollar figure at the point that the specialty contractors should be able to offer a very accurate cost proposal based on the virtual construction model. The remaining risk is labor productivity and job performance, which only differs from conventional delivery methods by the accuracy of fully coordinated construction documents and tighter budget control through the design process.

Making the leap

On the contractor's side, successful implementation and use of BIM requires significant investments in technology, staff and training. With more than 200 professionals who are well versed in the BIM project delivery method, EMCOR Group and its subsidiaries have had first-hand experience with this transition.

The technological leap

Making the technological leap from CAD to BIM requires more powerful PC hardware and new software, along with a network, servers and high-speed telecommunications backbone that support the process. Based on EMCOR's experience and conversations with general and mechanical contractors, a significant financial investment in hardware and software is required. There are additional investments in user training and the development of libraries and other standards.

Building the BIM team

There also is a leap from CAD to BIM in terms of staffing. It takes someone with a foundation of computer skills, a willingness to learn BIM technology and the process of collaboration and the technical and intellectual capabilities to integrate this knowledge into the contracting business. A contractor may find it necessary to hire an individual with these core qualities and capabilities who will act as the nucleus around which to build the BIM team with new and existing staff.

Although training is provided by BIM hardware and software vendors, it generally is geared toward a broad range of users. Contractors would do well to invest in training that is specifically tailored for their specific industry and business model, generally through third-party training organizations and one-on-one mentoring.

Experienced BIM contractors have found that a person with the skills, qualities and capabilities described above still experiences a significant learning curve in the process of becoming fully proficient.

In fact, perhaps the major challenge to the successful implementation of BIM is the ability to recruit and/or train qualified staff rapidly enough to make the transition financially viable.

Commitment and planning

The successful transition to BIM also requires a commitment starting with the individual at the CEO level and the leadership to propel change throughout the organization.

Finally, successful implementation of this new project delivery method requires that the project team redefine their roles and responsibilities in the BIM process and put these in writing in the form of a well-defined BIM implementation plan (BIP) and a well-defined project delivery plan (PDP). If we are solely focused on the technology itself, it is quite possible to go off on the wrong track.

Together, the BIP and PDP comprise the road-map of the process by which the virtual model becomes a concrete set of construction documents and, in turn, a bricks-and-sticks building. BIM is a revolutionary change that is sweeping the industry.

There is no doubt that it is dramatically changing project delivery for contractors and owners alike — for the better.

Bradley D. Thornton is president and CEO of University Mechanical & Engineering Contractors Inc. (UMEC), Arizona. David Morris is director of virtual construction for EMCOR Construction Services, a core business of EMCOR Group Inc. EMCOR Group is a Fortune 500 leader in mechanical and electrical construction, energy infrastructure and facilities services for a diverse range of businesses globally.